Nuclear powerA long-term low carbon energy strategy is essential for a prosperous U.K.

Published 16 March 2012

An urgent remodeling of the U.K. energy infrastructure is vital if the country wants to decarbonize without “the lights going out” and not be reliant on imported energy supplies, says a new report

An urgent remodeling of the U.K. energy infrastructure is vital if the country wants to decarbonize without “the lights going out” and not be reliant on imported energy supplies, says a new report by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE) at the University of Oxford.

Towards a low carbon pathway for the UK emphasizes the need to remodel our infrastructure between now and 2025 to redress the balance between energy security and decarbonization. Following up on last year’s report, A Low Carbon Nuclear Future, SSEE’s latest research highlights how, with the right strategy, a £100 billion world-leading nuclear industry, providing more than 75,000 jobs and guaranteeing a consistent, safe energy supply, while still meeting long term carbon emission targets, can be achieved.

An SSEE release reports that “Towards a low carbon pathway for the UK” explores two key aspects of the U.K. energy landscape: the future delivery of low carbon energy and the initial moves toward a new build program, and the more immediate first steps of safely and cost efficiently dealing with the U.K. plutonium inventory.

Professor Sir David King, director of SSEE, comments: “If we are to ensure we have a safe, secure and affordable supply of energy as we move through the century we need a coherent strategy that allows the United Kingdom to develop a full suite of low carbon energy sources.  It is clear from our study that nuclear must play an important part in the energy mix but to do so requires a long term pathway and critical insights.

“The recent announcements on the Franco-British Accord and the desire to create a long-term strategy for nuclear up to and beyond 2050 are welcome, but we need to address the fundamental issue that energy provision is generally a 100 year program and requires not just a long-term view, but skills and the science base to support it.”

While nuclear new build is essential, with a quarter of the U.K. current generating capacity coming to the end of its life over the next ten years, the report highlights that we must also deal with the legacy issues that have been with us for many years. Failure to do so could have a detrimental effect on the whole nuclear industry in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, if the United kingdom is to retain public support for nuclear as a key part of our future energy mix, then it has to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt and that there is in place a coherent policy framework which will capitalize on the opportunities and benefits on offer.

An enormous challenge in meeting future electricity demand is anticipated with the predicted electrification of transport and heating increasing demand by 100 percent by 2050. To ensure the United Kingdom can keep the lights on and meet its low carbon energy targets, it will be essential to use greater levels of nuclear power.  This will require either much higher uranium reserves than currently identified, or a change of fuel cycle to minimize uranium use.

Using the U.K. plutonium inventory to manufacture MOX (mixed oxide) fuel is the government’s “minded to” position. Coupled with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s stance on reprocessing spent fuel from advanced gas-cooled reactors the de facto UK policy on nuclear would, therefore, be the recycling of plutonium and uranium as fuel.

The structure of the U.K. nuclear industry, however, is currently aligned more toward the “no nuclear” stance of 2003 than the “new build” stance of 2012 and the report points out the clear need for some form of independent body to advise on long-term nuclear strategy and options.

— Read more in Towards a low carbon pathway for the UK (SSEE March 2012); and see U.K. Nuclear Development Timeline 1950-2012 and Onward